Telephone customers in northern Calvert County will pay less next year for a "metro" line--the premium service that allows callers to dial Annapolis or Washington without long distance charges--under a decision released Friday by the state Public Service Commission.
Ray Bourland, the chief hearing examiner for the commission, has ordered Bell Atlantic to drop its monthly rate for a "metro" line from $14 to $2 for customers in the North Beach area as of Jan. 1, 2000.
He ordered the same change for telephone customers in northern Montgomery area of Poolesville, who buy metro lines for local access to Washington and northern Virginia. Bell Atlantic would not say how many customers in North Beach and Poolesville areas will be affected by the change.
Consumer activists, who have been battling Bell Atlantic's fee structures for years, said the order doesn't go far enough.
Residents in Southern Maryland, Kent Island and northern Montgomery County want Bell Atlantic to expand local calling areas so that rural customers no longer have to pay long-distance fees to metropolitan areas.
"It's a token answer. It's garbage," said Ivan Petric, a Dunkirk resident who collected 16,000 signatures on a petition asking the state to expand the local calling area for Washington and Annapolis to include five counties--Calvert, St. Mary's, Charles, Prince George's and Anne Arundel. "This is something, but it's not what the people wanted. This is what Bell Atlantic wanted."
Petric now pays $27 a month for a local telephone line an additional $14.50 for a metro line. On Jan. 1, that metro line will cost him $2. But he says that's not low enough. "They should make it 50 cents," he said. "Better yet, take it away altogether." Petric said he will appeal Bourland's decision with the Public Service Commission within 30 days. And he said he will take his fight to Annapolis, where he hopes lawmakers will take up the issue in the next session of the General Assembly.
Bell Atlantic, which owns most of the telephone lines in the state, argued that expanding the local calling area is a cumbersome task that would require federal approval and would force the company to raise basic rates around Maryland.
Sandra Arnette, a spokeswoman for Bell Atlantic, said that the company is still studying the order but that it will need to raise basic telephone rates for all Maryland customers by four cents to make up for revenue it will lose when it reduces the metro line rates for North Beach and Poolesville. Any such increase in its basic rates would have to be approved by the Public Service Commission.
Odd boundaries for local telephone service have long been a fact of life in Southern Maryland. Residents in Dunkirk can make local calls 40 miles away to Solomons, but they pay a toll when they call Annapolis just 20 miles away. For some residents, a call to the local police station is a toll charge.
Residents who want to avoid long-distance charges on calls to Annapolis or Washington currently buy a foreign telephone exchange--basically a second telephone line--to place and receive toll-free calls that otherwise would be long-distance connections.
Karen Egloff, who sells home accessories from her Huntingtown home, pays about $112 a month for her foreign exchange line--or metro line--for business calls. She spends another $25 a month on her local line.
"You have to have two phone lines," she said. "If you don't have the local line, you couldn't call a neighbor or a local store. It would be a long distance charge. And you're forced to have a metro line to communicate with the outside world."
While Southern Maryland residents want local access to Annapolis and Washington, telephone customers in Kent Island want local calling access to Annapolis and residents in northern Montgomery County want local access to Washington and Northern Virginia.
Charlene Cohen, who lives in northern Rockville, said it costs her 28 cents a minute to call Alexandria, Va., but just seven cents a minute to call Beverly Hills, Calif. "I have been fighting this for 20 years," she said.
State Del. Joan F. Stern (D-Montgomery) has said she plans to file legislation to expand the calling areas in the next session of the General Assembly. Stern, however, may run up against a roadblock: Local calling areas are set by the Federal Communications Commission.
Meanwhile, Theresa Czarski, a state assistant people's counsel, said increased competition among telephone companies is the real answer to lingering inequities in pricing. "Hopefully at some point competition will take care of this," she said. Czarski called the decision a "very good order that balances very fairly a lot of the competing interests and provides some relief to people who are paying very high toll charges."